The Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith) brought rock’n’roll to TV with their mega-successful 1966-68 musical sitcom. Inspired by The Beatles’ onscreen antics in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider cast four fresh-faced youths (Jones was a Tony nominee for OLIVER!, Dolenz had starred in TV’s CIRCUS BOY, Tork and Nesmith were vets of the folk-rock scene), hired some of the era’s top songwriters (Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson) and session musicians (Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell , Carol Kaye), and Monkeemania became a full-fledged teenybop pop phenomenon.
Detractors (and there were many) in the music biz called them ‘The Pre-Fab Four’, looking down their noses at The Monkees while looking up as hits like “I’m a Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” climbed to the top of the charts. But like all fads, Monkeemania quickly died out, and NBC cancelled the show in 1968. Rafelson, Schneider, and the group (who by this time were writing and playing their own music) decided an image makeover was needed, and together with co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson) concocted the psychedelic, surrealistic feature film HEAD.
The movie is a completely plotless, colorful swirl of imagery, blackout skits, and satire focusing on The Monkees’ attempt to be taken seriously. To try and describe this mélange of trippy 60’s bizarreness would be pointless, which features everything from clips of film classics (Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT, Rita Hayworth in GILDA ), footage of Monkee concerts and the Vietnam War, spoofs of movie genres (westerns, boxing epics, war films, musicals, science fiction, AIP/Poe horrors), guest stars ( Victor Mature , Annette Funicello , Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Tor Johnson , and a totally insane Timothy Carey !), and songs. Yet somehow, it all works as an entertaining piece of LSD-inspired lunacy that may be jarring to some but is never boring!
Despite this stab at something different, HEAD totally tanked at the box office. The Monkees’ teenybopper fan base didn’t know what to make of it, and the older hippies wouldn’t give them the time of day. As for the adults… fuggetaboutit!! The Monkees gradually disbanded, only to reunite decades later after the ironic crowd rediscovered them via reruns on Nickelodeon and MTV (which Nesmith had a hand in creating). Davy Jones died in 2012 and Nesmith’s now too rich to care, but Dolenz and Tork still carry the Monkee torch, touring as recently as 2016 for the group’s 50th anniversary.
As for the producers, each went on to success. Schneider won an Oscar for the 1974 documentary HEARTS AND MINDS, while Rafelson directed films like FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), STAY HUNGRY (1976), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), BLACK WIDOW (1987), and BLOOD AND WINE (1996). That guy Nicholson did okay for himself, too! HEAD is truly too unconventional for words, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by it, especially if you’re a classic film fan. Just turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream… oops, sorry, wrong band!
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17 Replies to “Rockin’ in the Film World #12: The Monkees in HEAD (Columbia 1968)”
Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.
You are far, far too kind to that bizarre oddity known as the Monkees. They were seen by everyone with a fully functioning brain and soul as the essence of fakery. A blatant attempt to cash-in on the counter-culture, using the most co-opted group of phonies, both on and off-stage, that could be found.
After spending a short time gaining what passed for fame among the bubble gum set, they spent the rest of their time apologizing and trying to prove that they actually could produce something close to music. While they did manage to sell a couple of tunes, that did nothing to help erase the ugly stain that was the Monkees. Simply put, they were the punchline to a very poorly told joke back then.
Their only real value was as the answer to a snarky trivia question: “If you lived through the 60s and 70s and somehow managed to absolutely miss the whole point, your favorite “musical group” (sic) had to be … ?
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I was eight when they debuted. They were geared to kids like me. And “plastic” though they may have been, those songwriters and session musicians were top of the line.
You are absolutely correct. The people who created the Monkees monster bought the best ingredients around. And that was a primary part of the problem. The cynicism was wall-to-wall, top to bottom. The attitude was; “Hey, this rock & roll idol thing is dead simple to reproduce. Those fans are way too easy to fool.” That’s what made the whole thing so despicable.
Keep in mind that those times were just as heavily political and divided as they are now, with rock music and Vietnam being the additional components. Legitimate music was the road map that the politically aware paid attention to, so the totally fake road map that the Monkees represented was despised with very good reason. What they did was far worse than some contemporary pop star being caught lip-syncing. The Monkees creation was the music industry straights, openly flipping-off the “real” musical artists of those days.
If I had more time, I’d write what I REALLY think about them.
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Boy does this Chuck guy have it completely wrong! The Monkees were devised as an American TV version of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, and their on screen persona as a four piece band struggling to earn enough money to avoid being evicted from their beach house abode was something that many current groups were all too familiar with. The four performers chosen to play The Monkees essentially got to play exaggerated versions of themselves, except for Peter Tork, the most accomplished musician of the quartet, who had to provide the Harpo-type naïve character with a heart of gold. It was Tork and Michael Nesmith whose integrity induced professional actors Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones to bond with them as a genuine band, kicking off live performances on Dec 3 1966 after months of rehearsing. Of all the current groups only The Who seriously considered doing a TV series, the incredible workload of filming TV episodes during the day, recording songs at night, doing promotions and also rehearsing in what little spare time they had was something that no other group could have equaled. That The Monkees are as popular as they’ve ever been more than 50 years later is a testament to their ongoing appeal, not just to children but to adults as well, with more and more unreleased nuggets emerging from the vaults to delight longtime fans who thought long ago that they’d heard it all. Erin and Tara know of which I speak, and no amount of envious Monkee bashing can deny the impact of the music or the series.
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No, Kevin, that “Chuck guy” has it completely right. He (I) lived through it and worked through it in various parts of the music and broadcasting industries. Though the individuals who played The Monkees eventually gained a bit of respect, and more than a little sympathy, the concept that led to their invention – and they were definitely “an invention’ – was despised, 100%, by anyone and everyone on the serious side of rock music.
They were seen for what they were, which was a totally faked effort to cash-in on rock, at a time when authentic rock was at the core of progressive, anti-conservative politics, beliefs and lifestyles. For those reasons, The Monkees “thing” was despised, except by the bubble-gum set.
That same attitude was displayed towards the Col. Parker iteration of Elvis Presley, Sonny & Cher, the Mommas and the Papas and a few others, all of whom were viewed with the derision displayed a few years earlier towards Pat Boone when he tried – horribly – to mimic Little Richard.
To be blunt – as if I haven’t been so to this point – The Monkees were a blatant insult to the same genre they were designed to mimic. And while hindsight has been very kind to them, and for some good reasons, the absolute indisputable fact is that anyone and everyone who knew what authentic music was all about back then hated everything about The Monkees and what they represented.
If you don’t believe me, check the archived playlists of any reputable progressive, AOR radio station from that era, or better yet, ask the surviving band members themselves.